Hell's Siphon

George Harmon Coxe


THE police touring car stopped with a jerk and both front doors swung wide. Jack Nason, First Grade Detective from the Central Office, slid from under the wheel, ran around behind the car and sprinted into the black mouth of the alley a stride or two in back of Detective Carrigan who had leaped to the sidewalk from the opposite door.

Racing heels clicked on the cobblestone flooring, echoed hollowly from unseen walls until Nason jerked out his pocket flashlight. Then a yellow cone stabbed the darkness, picking out a vague, dark-suited form fifty feet beyond.

The form took shape as he pounded on, and the rays of the flashlight picked out metal buttons, a badge, a whitish oval that became the face of Sergeant Kenny of the precinct station.

“In here,” Kenny said, holstering his gun and pushing on a door at his side.

An orange rectangle slashed across the alley floor and up the grimy brick wall opposite. Kenny stepped into the light and the brogue of his ancestors was in his thick voice.

“Alpert's jewelry store. It's Donigan—and Sam Steig.”

Nason said: “Donigan?” incredulously; then repeated the word in hollow tones as he pushed into the room with Carrigan at his heels.

A single overhead bulb made the enclosure—a storeroom filled with cardboard cartons and dusty shelves—all highlights and shadows. Kenny continued to a doorway beyond and stepped aside.

A canvas curtain which closed off the front of the store had been dropped a foot or so in front of a huge wall safe. Nearby was a long table, flanked by three chairs. On the floor, one outflung hand hidden by the shadow of the table, sprawled the body of Sam Steig.

Nason saw him but vaguely. His eyes, his thoughts, were on a second crumpled and inert form a few feet away; a young-looking, curly- headed figure who wore the blue of a police uniform.

“When Donigan didn't ring in”—Kenny nodded at the uniformed figure—“I came out to look for him.” The voice seemed chagrined. “Thought maybe he was celebrating again. He was workin' off some punishment duty for being drunk a while back.”

Nason said: “Donigan,” again. Spoke the word in an absent, toneless voice.

It wasn't just the macabre picture of death. He'd seen enough of this sort of thing to accept it as part of his job. But Donigan—this was different. He'd been to Police Academy with Donigan. Lately, since Nason had been moved to the detective bureau at headquarters, their paths had not crossed so frequently. But they were still friends.

Donigan—warmhearted, happy-go-lucky Irishman.

Nason cast aside his bitter thoughts with an effort and knelt beside his friend, felt for a pulse, dropped the limp wrist. Turning, but without getting off his one knee, he searched for a spark of life in the other man. Suddenly he muttered an oath.

“This guy's still alive.” He looked at Carrigan. “Get on the phone. When you finish get Alpert down here.”

KENNY pushed aside the canvas curtain and went into the front part of the store with Carrigan. Nason, concentrating on his new job now, made a careful inspection of the space behind the curtain.

The safe had been opened. In place of the combination was a gaping hole; around this the metal looked as if it had been sprayed with blue-gray paint, the result of the intense heat of the acetylene torch which, with its torpedo-like fuel container, stood nearby.

His ordinarily good-natured face was grim as he stood there, a well set-up fellow of average height; young, competent, clean-looking. After a moment he took off his hat and opened his topcoat. He ran a forefinger around the inside of the damp sweatband, and the shadows cast by his straight brows made his eyes as black as his hair.

Finally he replaced the hat and gave his attention to the man beside the table, recalled what he knew about the fellow.

Sam Steig was the sort of individual who, in a small town, would hang around the pool room and corner drugstore. He was a big man, about thirty- five; a former second-rate boxer. After leaving the ring he had become a bodyguard. And for the past six months he had been working as nightwatchman and guard for Alpert's jewelry store.

Nason dropped beside the limp figure and opened the coat, and a vest that was sodden with blood. Steig had been shot twice in the chest and only the closest scrutiny revealed the faint movement of the breast that hoarded the spark of life.

Carrigan and Kenny came back behind the canvas curtain. Paying them no attention, Nason moved to Donigan's body and unbuttoned the tunic. He saw then that the policeman had been shot in the back. There was no hole in the chest and the bullet was still in the body. And the service revolver was still in its holster.

“He never had a chance to use it,” he said grimly.

“Well, that's damn funny,” Kenny growled. Nason's deft fingers continued their exploration until they touched a tissue paper packet in the breast pocket of the shirt. Withdrawing this, he unfolded the paper until with startling suddenness, his palm was filled with a half-dozen unset diamonds that glittered and sparkled in the tepid light of the room.

For an interminable moment no one spoke. Nason felt his nerves jerk taut as his jaw sagged. Finally Kenny cursed once and Carrigan wheezed:

“For hell's sake, what—”

“Take a look at Steig's gun!” Nason snapped. “How many times was it fired?”

When Kenny said: “Once,” Nason stood up. He did not speak for a moment, but there was a weird curve to his lips that pulled them back against his teeth.

“His gun was in his holster,” Carrigan said slowly, in the absent tones of a man talking to himself, “and those stones in an inside pocket—” His voice got thin and hard. “Hell, you don't think he—”

“Who cares what I think?” Nason said bitterly.

“Get on the phone. It'll be plenty of grief no matter how you figure it.”

LIEUTENANT FITZPATRICK was a lanky, red-headed, sharp-tongued cop with cold gray eyes and a lean, hawk-like face that was twisted in a scowl as he spoke to the ambulance interne.

“Well, how about it? Is he gonna live? Do we get to talk to him?”

The interne, a sandy-haired fellow with glasses, shrugged in a gesture of weariness.

“I don't think he's got a chance, no. But he might come around for a while.”

The examiner's physician, who had been making an inspection of Donigan's body, extended a partly-flattened lead slug to Fitzpatrick.

“This one was easy,” he said bruskly. “Just under the skin above the heart.”

Fitzpatrick weighted the bullet in his palm, scowled down at it and said nothing. As the examiner's man began to pack his bag, Nason said:

“I'd have somebody from Ballistics check that with Steig's gun.”

The lieutenant's brows arched above cold gray eyes. “You think Steig shot him? Why?”

“We looked the room over. There's no sign of any other slug. And there's no blood. Steig shot at something. If he'd hit one of the guys that cracked the box we ought to see some blood. If he missed we would've found the bullet.”

Fitzpatrick's forehead was like a washboard. He said nothing, watched the ambulance assistants put Steig on a stretcher, until the back door banged open and footsteps scurried across the floor.

Moe Alpert rushed through the narrow inner doorway an instant later and came to an abrupt stop just across the threshold. He was plump, curly- headed, smartly dressed, with a diamond as big as his knuckle winking from a little finger. His face was sweaty, fatty, with the look of a man who lives and eats well but not too wisely.

As he burst into excited speech, directing his remarks to Fitzpatrick, Nason watched him and made an effort to recall the man's history.

Aside from one breath of suspicion which tagged him “fence” some years ago, his record was clean. There

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